In 2009, campaigner Georgina Downs unsuccessfully fought against DEFRA’s refusal to apply mandatory “buffer zones” around the edges of fields to protect rural residents from use of pesticides by farmers in the Court of Appeal.

Following Downs’ disappointment at the Court of Appeal, Hilary Benn (then secretary of state for the environment) announced a consultation process on “how to give people access to farmers’ spraying records, how to give residents prior notification of spraying activity and what else should be included in our national action plan”.

Shortly after his announcement, Benn’s ambitions were reflected by the EU in the text of regulation 1107/2009 “concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market” (PPP) which is due to come into force on 14 June 2011.

The article in PPP which is currently causing controversy is number 31. This sets out the mandatory contents of product authorisations. These prescribe (among other things) a series of requirements in terms of the use of the product, which must appear on the product label and with which the end user must comply. The mandatory requirements are (article 31(3)) that the label needs to set out the maximum dose per hectare for each application, the period between last application and harvest, and the maximum number of applications per year. So far, rather uncontroversial.

However, article 31(4) then allows member states to set out some further ‘optional’ (for the government) requirements which may be required on the label: the first is a usage restriction in terms of the distribution and use of the pesticide “to protect the health of the distributors, users, bystanders, residents, consumers, workers involved in the spreading”; and the second is an “obligation before the product is used to inform any neighbours who could be exposed to the spray drift and who have requested to be informed”.

The net effect of this could have been that a farmer in a well-informed village contemplating spraying a field could have found a small army of concerned villagers asking to be “put on the list”.

Sadly for the anti-pesticide lobby, the government consultation report recently published has intimated that the “31(4) optionals” are not to be adopted, and DEFRA seems confident that very few changes to our national law will be needed to make the UK compliant. Particularly as the ‘tell your neighbours’ part of PPP was never compulsory anyway.

It is perhaps sad that the Government seems to have missed an opportunity, but a balance has to be struck between responsible farming and overregulation.